The first time Tricia had sex, she didn’t really want to do it. When she was younger, she had the aspiration to wait until marriage to have sex. But this was her first boyfriend, and her friends warned her that if she didn’t have sex with him, he would get it somewhere else and she would lose him. So she slept with him—only to find out later that he was cheating on her.
“I wasn’t in love with him,” said Tricia, who was 22 at the time of our first interview with her. “I was trying to force that situation to work.”
Tricia had since made peace with premarital sex, though she thought you should be “in love” with the person and know that the relationship is “long term.” About cohabitation, she said, “I think that now since everything’s a little less conservative, a little less strict—like, you know, we’re not still in corsets and holding our umbrellas and not showing our ankle—it’s not that bad.”
When my wife, Amber, first interviewed Tricia, she was in a long-distance relationship with a man she hoped to marry. Sitting inside Starbucks, Tricia said that she wanted to move in with her boyfriend, an artist from New York City, but her parents were opposed and wanted her to finish her two-year degree in graphic design first. She and her boyfriend had talked about marriage, she said, but they weren’t in a rush. Anyways, she said, “We know we’re gonna be together.”
“I want him to be just as into [marriage] as I am, and I know he is now,” she said. “We talk about it, but, you know, like, he said, ‘When it happens, it’ll happen.’”
However, sitting outside of Starbucks, her boyfriend, Brad, told me a different story. He wasn’t so sure that their relationship would work out. With Tricia, he said, everything was about their relationship—it was all about “us.” Brad thought she was very attractive, and unlike past girlfriends, she had thus far managed to hold his “interest.” “It’s just I don’t wanna be sixty and grumpy and crying over a piano that never is being used anymore,” he said, explaining his reticence about their relationship.
‘I wasted two and a half years of my life thinking this was going somewhere.’
A few months after our interview, Brad suddenly stopped answering Tricia’s calls. For over two years, they had talked every single day, and suddenly, nothing. Finally, he sent her an email saying that their relationship was over, and that “it’s not up for discussion.” Enraged, Tricia left him multiple voicemails and emails, but still, no response. So she decided to fly to New York City and challenge him to meet her at the airport, so that she could confront him face-to-face. As she said, explaining her thinking, “‘I’m gonna force you to grow up right now and tell me because I wasted two and a half years of my life thinking this was going somewhere and then you’re gonna tell me that this is not up for discussion?’”
However, Brad refused to meet her at the airport. Instead, he asked his roommate, a woman, to deliver messages for him through phone calls and text messages: he was done, and it wasn’t up for discussion. Tricia had no choice but to take the morning flight out and return to Ohio.
Looking back, Tricia identifies several lessons, including moving a little more slowly in relationships: when she and Brad first were getting to know each other, she moved to New York City and lived with him for a month. “That was too much,” she said.
Most of the working-class young adults Amber and I interviewed for the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project have no problem with premarital sex. Moreover, almost everyone had had premarital sex, even if they believed at the time of our interviews that sex should happen within marriage. But many people, like Tricia, also thought that relationships should develop at a slower pace, and—often because of their experiences—thought that sex should be a more intentional act than what they perceived the norm to be.
One woman who said she had “been there, done that” with casual sex thought that it “makes things worse, and I think it makes your head screwed up.” Once you have sex with someone, she said, “it just changes things.” You could be just friends, but after sex, “it’s like, ‘Okay, now we’ve had sex, does this mean that we need to be in a relationship? I don’t know, for me, I guess that’s kind of my thinking. And the guy might be thinking, ‘No, I just want to have sex with you and then see you later.’ But I don’t know, it just seems like it makes it more confusing.”
Men also voiced these sentiments. Mike, who was in a cohabiting relationship with his girlfriend, said that “Sex is not like [the] Hustlers logo, ‘Relax, it’s just sex.’ That’s wrong. It’s this epic, amazing thing.” In his view, if you’re having sex with someone, you are basically married to them. For this reason, he said he wouldn’t advise other people to do what he was doing (living with someone and having sex before marriage).
Many agree that sex should happen within a loving relationship, but how do you discern if the relationship is one of mutual love?
One of the difficulties that comes through in people’s stories is this: many people agree that sex should happen within a loving or committed relationship, but how do you discern if the relationship is one of mutual love or commitment? As Sara put it, just “sleeping around” “hurts people and there are consequences with that.” You should go into sex, she said, “from a place of love.” But how do you know if the other person is going into it with the same intentions? Sara was in a sexual relationship with a man for over a year, but every time she asked him if they were dating, he would say “No” or “Maybe.” Soon, it became apparent that he was sleeping with another woman as well. Even if she had gone into the relationship from a place of love, apparently he hadn’t.
Even hook-ups can get muddled. One woman, devastated about her recent breakup with her fiancé, had sex with a man after getting drunk at a party. When she woke up the next morning with him, she told him, “You can leave now.” But as she recounts it, he then started “treating me like a girlfriend.” He kept in touch with her, and she even started sleeping at his house. But after their sex started slowing down, he bolted. As he explained to her, “I haven’t gotten laid in like a month now and you’re supposed to be a f*** buddy…. I don’t want a girlfriend.” She was startled and told him so: “I’m like, ‘It’s funny you told me all of this and then you start treating me like a girlfriend. And everything we do it’s always ‘Baby,’ ‘Sweetie,’ blah, blah, blah. I’m not the one that said you have to be my boyfriend.’”
Another woman, Kimberly, talking about sex, said, “I’ve realized that’s one thing you can’t just give up right away; you’ve got to kind of hold off.” You get “more emotionally involved with someone” when you have sex, and it’s more difficult to break up the relationship if things aren’t going well. But there is a dilemma here, she notes: you don’t want to jump into sex too quickly, because it’s not a good way to find a good person (as almost everyone, men and women, agree); but if you wait to have sex too long, you might not find the right person. As Kimberly said, “I can’t keep doin’ it the wrong way, because the wrong way’s not gettin’ me nowhere…. I’m just afraid that if I don’t jump into it that I’m gonna lose that person.”
“Put less emphasis on sex,” said Adam, when asked if he could change anything about relationships today. “I do believe sex is very important in a relationship, but I think that people are too quick to expect it or to feel like it’s expected of them. So nowadays, I think people are crazy with one-night stands and all that kind of stuff, and sleeping with someone you’ve just met. I’ve never really been that type of person. If I’m gonna share myself that intimately with somebody, I always feel like I wanna know them first. And I don’t think a lot of people share the same values.”
But if our interviews with working-class young adults are any indication, there may be more people like Adam than he thinks.